Requiem For Penn Station

Steppin' Out Magazine Cover
Cover of Steppin' Out Magazine featuring Kari Ann Peniche.
Steppin Out Magazine

Imagine yourself walking into the old Penn Station.

Imagine staring up nearly 150 feet and seeing light flooding down around you. Imagine such a place as the backdrop for your goings and comings.

"Penn Station was the greatest of them all," said Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for New Yorker magazine. "Penn Station emerged out of a time when the whole act of travel had a kind of ritual ceremony to it. The beauty, really, of coming into a city or leaving a city with a great piece of architecture, a great gateway was really what it was."

Penn Station was torn down 35 years ago. The critic, Lewis Mumford, called its destruction "an act of irresponsible public vandalism." Photojournalist Peter Moore thought it was a tragedy.

"He was very much into documenting it - from beginning to end, literally, and nobody else did that," said Moore's widow, Barbara.

Moore shot thousands of photographs. Barbara just published the best of his work in "The Destruction of Penn Station."

"He captured these wonderful, grand images from the beginning, and then the sadness of the whole process, and then this ruin in the end," said Barbara.

Penn Station was finished in 1910. With its great colonnade, it sprawled over nine acres. It was so big that the eagles on top looked small, though every one weighed nearly three tons. Penn Station was architect Charles McKim's masterpiece.

Hollywood actually reconstructed Penn Station on a back lot for "The Clock," a World War II romance starring Robert Walker and Judy Garland.

In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock used the real thing in "Strangers on a Train." Its star, Farley Granger, chased a murderer through Penn Station.

"You couldn't help but to be awestruck [by Penn Station] every time," said Barbara Moore.

Shortly after they married, Barbara and her husband, Peter, found themselves living near Penn Station.

"We just loved to go there because of the ambiance," recalled Barbara.

By then, the Pennsylvania Railroad was failing. Its most valuable asset, Penn Station, was valuable not because of what it was, but because of what it might become — a source of revenue for anybody who could build on the site.

Architects organized protests. Speaking for them, Philip Johnson was prophetic.

"If you have to, as you will in the future when they tear it down, come out of the Pennsylvania Station as if you were in a subway station, how degrading for the entrance of what we think of as the greatest city in the world," said Johnson of the planned destruction of the station.

But in October 1963, demolition began. The weird irony is that photographer Peter Moore turned the destruction of Penn Station into art.

"I think the destruction is very beautiful. These pictures are quite romantic, actually, as painful as they are for us to see today," said Barbara.

"The first thing you think of when you look at those photographs is not how terrible it was," said Paul Goldberger. "But how difficult it must have been to tear it down. How long it took. That building was really built to last forever, and, in a way, it was like deciding that some force of nature, like some mountain, was going to be removed."

The demolition took three years.

"It just sort of went on and on, and it also went in sections, so one part would be standing while another part would be rubble, and that made the comparison more dramatic and more heartbreaking," said Barbara.

All the more heartbreaking because of what took its place.

"One of the greatest buildings that has ever been built in the history of New York was being torn down for the most mediocre modern box imaginable," said Barbara.

But it was a revenue-producing box. Beneath Madison Square Garden, buried in the ground, lie the remains of Penn Station.

It's pretty much universally judged to be a grubby, depressing, undistinguished place where going and coming is just going and coming.

"Maybe we had to lose something as important as Penn Station," said Goldberger, "You know, I sometimes think of it as the building that died so that others might live."

Largely because of the destruction of Penn Station, a million buildings nationwide have been saved. One thousand in New York City alone have been spared.

So, this story has something of a happy ending, but with a twist. One of the buildings the Penn Station demolition helped save is the General Post Office, right across the street.

Now, it is going to be transformed into a new Penn Station. The firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill will embellish it with a soaring arch of steel and glass. The renovation cost is at least half-a-billion dollars. It's a high price for atonement, but when it's done, once again you'll be able to look up and see light at Penn Station.

"Time and again, Peter's pictures show the way the light came into that building was part of its grandeur, and also, something you can only get, because of the high ceiling, the clerestory windows, the whole construction and design of the place," said Barbara.

Peter Moore's pictures are a reminder that the real Penn Station is gone. No new version of it could ever quite take its place. If it were music, this photographic diary of destruction would be a requiem.